Stage 1 of Haute Route Pyrenees is done. What a day and certainly plenty to talk about. Today’s stage started and finished in Pau, 148km with 2800m of climbing. The two principal climbs of the day were the Col de Labays and the Col de Marie Blanque. Both these climbs are tough, Labays is effectively 10km at an average gradient of around 9% and Marie Blanque’s final 4 kms are pitched at an average of 12%. This was never going to be an easy day.
The day started well with all 10 members of our team looking bright eyed and bushy tailed on the start line after a decent night’s sleep. The weather was great, dry and warm. The stage started with a ‘neutralised’ 10km section. This means that it is not timed, we were lead gently out of Pau behind the race director’s car. Neutralised sections are quite nice in that there’s a chance to chat will fellow riders and it ends up being a warm up for the day. As the 10km point approached the director’s car accelerated and Haute Route had officially started. Immediately the pace shoots up from the neutralised 20km/h to over 40km/h. Riders looking for a good result are desperate to get to the front and the peloton starts to stretch under the stress of the bigger efforts. The rolling roads south of Pau provide short, sharp hills to test us and the peloton starts to fragment as a result. 15kms into the race and there is a lead group of around 70 riders with a distinct gap to the rest of the field.
I had comfortably made it into this group as had Alastair, potentially the strongest rider in our team. I was so pleased to see that Felix and Mark had made it in there too. We had a relatively flat ride as we rode further south to the foot of the first major climb which would officially start at the 50km point. Over the flats the pace slowed massively, no one wanted to push ahead and collectively we ambled our way into the Pyrenees at an uncharacteristicly slow pace for the Haute Route. James managed to join our group as did many other riders swelling the lead group to around 100riders. There was plenty of opportunity to talk to other riders and the atmosphere was very relaxed, it wouldn’t last for long.
As soon as we hit the first ramps on the Labays the peloton exploded and fragmented, a lead group of around 10 riders established itself with myself and Alastair at the head of the next group just behind. Labays is tough but seemed to go well for Alastair and I. We both got into a rhythm and found ourselves maintaining our positions in the field. My only concern was the fact that my heart rate was very high and my power output was higher than I’d planned. This concern would increase later in the ride as it would become apparent that I’d pushed too hard on that first climb.
A short but awkward descent followed. Damp, narrow, gravel in spots, all demanding our full attention to stay upright. As we scaled the small climb to the next feed station I started to get the first signs of cramp in my legs. Cramp is a mysterious thing that is still not clearly understood. Dehydration and electrolyte losses may cause it for some people but I know 100% what causes it for me, over exertion. Pushing my body beyond what it’s trained to do for too long and cramp reminds me of my foolish confidence that preceded it. I knew I had a problem. I also knew that I’ve dealt with cramp before. It’s something I can get through and out the other side but usually requires a period of less intensity and the right cadence or rate of pedalling. From 77kms to 96kms I had the opportunity to recover, another neutralised, untimed section and a chance to manage my sore legs.
The final climb is scary, the last 4kms are brutal. I got to the the start of the steep section together with all my main rivals and Alastair. The double figure ramps that followed would cripple me. I watch the bulk of the group ride off up the road as I was left with the stragglers who I’m sure would have their own tales to tell. I felt like the race was slipping through my fingers like sand. I was haemorrhaging time at an alarming rate and there was nothing my legs could do about it. Earlier in the day pushing on the pedals and seeing 320 watts on my power meter seemed so easy. Now I was writhing and using every sinew to try to get 250 of the damn things. I was cracking in a big way.
I lost 3 minutes to my main rivals in those 4kms and more importantly lost the chance to ride with them the final 37kms to the finish where being with other riders would be essential.
I crested the Marie Blanque and I’ll be happy if I never see that hill ever again. My priority now was to concentrate, ride smooth and fast on the descent in the hope that I might catch another rider to give me some much needed company for the flat finish. It was futile, as the terrain opened up I could see well ahead and there was no one in sight. The thought of having to ride this last section on my own was horrific, even if I’d had strong legs.
Then, I was rescued, a Dutchman called Robert Jan came past me and I got on his wheel. He was big (well, by cycling standards). He looked fresh, strong and fast. Most importantly he was super friendly. He knew I was in trouble and he deliberately paced his effort so I could hang on. Turns out he’s a time trial specialist, super strong on the flat, the perfect saviour for me. This was like coming close to drowning and being thrown a life buoy. Robert asked me if I was any good at descending, I told him I was OK. Despite his strength he was clearly a cautious descender and not choosing the best lines. I took control of any downhill sections and showed him the way. We’d done a deal. I help him on the downhills and he’d help me on the flats. Those flats would go on for 25kms so I was getting by far the best side of the deal.Robert pulled me to the finish and for that I am deeply in his debt. A selfless ride from him and I could not thank him enough once we’d finished. Without him I’d have probably bled another 5 or even 10 minutes from my result.
So I finished, rescued from a disastrous result and ended up losing about 4 or 5 minutes to my main rivals. Not too bad in the whole scheme of things.
I finished 21st but the star of our team was Alastair Roberts finishing in a stunning 9th place, an awesome start to the event. Everyone in our team finished safely, superb top 50 finishes for Felix, James and Brian. I’m so proud that we have 5 Alpine Cadence riders in the top 50. Solid finishes too for Ian, Duncan, Mel and Riccardo with Brian denied a top 75 finish by punctures and other mechanical issues. All in all a fabulous result from the team. Well done.
All the day’s results can be found here
Tomorrow is massive. 3900m of climbing over the Aubisque, Spandelles and Hautacam. Hopefully I’ll learn from today and ride conservatively up the first climb and not have to go through the turmoil of today. We’ll see!